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Terry Engel


The Natchez Trace Parkway ran behind the neighborhood where I grew up, following the route of old Indian trails from the Cumberland River around Nashville, Tennessee to the Mississippi River at Natchez. In the 1500s Spanish conquistadors traveled the trail looking for gold and found the Mississippi River. In the early 1800s river boat men with the reputation of being fearless used the Trace to return to their homes in Kentucky and Ohio after floating barges down to New Orleans. Mississippi was wilderness then: Indians, highwaymen, wolves, bears, and panthers haunted the boat men's journey.

The parkway is scenic-rolling hills punctuated by farmland and cutover timber, no houses or businesses. It is closed to commercial vehicles and has a fifty-mile-per-hour speed limit. Frequent pull-offs allow travelers to read historical markers without leaving their cars.

At fourteen a friend named Mark and I backpacked seventy miles down the Trace. We filled our canteens at the house of a man who kenneled his hounds in junk cars. Our only trouble came when a carload of teenagers decided to harass us at a rest area. It didn't occur to me to be scared-that's something that comes with age. We ran off into the woods, and those teenagers didn't get out of the car. A year later we rode our bicycles two hundred miles to Jackson where we camped in some woods behind a grocery store, and then two hundred miles back. I've always wanted to live someplace wild, liked to take chances.

Mark and I hunted, rode motorcycles, chased raccoons with his hound through the woods at night, and learned to canoe white water on a chilly river in North Carolina. The white water stuck. I read somewhere that there's nothing quite like messing around in boats, and that's true. We liked the challenge of the river, man against nature stuff. Mark and I tried to impress girls with our adventure stories. We drifted the halls of our high school quoting Burt Reynolds from Deliverance whispering: "You don't beat this river," or "Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything."

Cliché or not, there is something about rivers, messing around in boats. Maybe it's being outside, the way water falls over and around rocks-the sound of it, the isolation, the tired feeling after a good day on the water.

Mark lives in Arizona now, but we've kept in touch. Mark writes me letters about western rivers and I tell him about new rivers in Arkansas and Tennessee. When I visit him out west I paddle a borrowed kayak called a Dancer. The way the boat responds in moving water, the way your body becomes a part of the boat is as close to a true dance as I've ever come.

Southern white water rivers flow through tight valleys and often are controlled by hydroelectric dams. Rainfall is plentiful and the rivers are runnable year-round as water is released to produce electricity. The typical southern rapid is drop/pool, usually one to two hundred yards long, ending with waterfalls followed by quiet pools. Precise maneuvering is required to set up for the waterfalls. Since the water flow is controlled, the rivers are smaller than out west, dependably constant.

Western rivers are messy. When the snow melts the rivers fill up with muddy brown water and the rapids can run anywhere from a quarter to two or three miles long. The paddling season lasts as long as the snow melt. Water levels can change dramatically depending on the weather in the mountains fifty miles away from where you're paddling. When the rivers cut through canyons there is a phenomenon called "big water." The water can't spread out, so it stacks up. Maneuverability is no longer a problem, rather, it's trying to remain upright while plowing through six- to ten-foot standing waves.

I have always had a problem with what are called "eskimo rolls," the ability to sweep the kayak upright after turning over. My roll is undependable. It comes and goes. Even though the mechanics of the roll are simple, there is a mental element that I haven't mastered. As in baseball, sometimes a batter will do everything right and still go into a hitting slump. I almost panic when I turn upside down. The kayak is a tight fit; wet suits, life preservers and paddling jackets make me feel claustrophobic. It's dark, cold, water goes up my nose, and I don't like the idea of my helmet bouncing off submerged rocks, or even worse, having to swim from my boat in a rapid. Swimming is embarrassing as well as dangerous. I don't want friends saying "There goes Engel again" whenever they have to rescue me.

Southern rivers are easier for me, the water clearer, waves smaller, not so intimidating as muddy western rivers. Kayakers talk about confidence, about knowing that you are going to roll up, and that it just happens. You're not supposed to think, is the idea. They say you have to like being underwater. My fear of not rolling makes the problem worse and sometimes I think it would be easier to never kayak again.

Last year I made my third kayaking trip west, where Mark had a surprise for me. He had gotten us on a trip with four other people, two kayakers and a raft, down the Colorado River through Westwater Canyon in southern Utah. The Colorado is the epitome of big water, of any white water in North America. In high school, Mark and I dreamed about the day we would kayak the Colorado River together.

Westwater Canyon funnels the river from a quarter-mile wide, about eighteen hundred feet, down to thirty-five feet, for six miles. The walls are vertical and shiny black, leaving only a patch of sky overhead. The river was flowing at nine thousand cubic feet per second that week, about seven times as much water as I cared to be on. At that flow the waves average ten feet high and something called "funny water" occurs. Random whirlpools are generated, sometimes in front of your boat, sometimes underneath it. The whirlpools seem to have minds of their own, laying ambushes for unsuspecting kayakers.

At Skull Rapid the current slams into a wall. Half the current splits off and runs down canyon. The other half has hollowed out a cylindrical hole in the canyon wall fifty feet in diameter, called the Room of Doom. If you are washed into the room when the river is high, it is impossible to get out. River runners once reported a herd of fifty or so drowned sheep, spinning around the Room of Doom like a washing machine. That's where I saw myself, circulating with god knows what, waiting for late summer when the water level would fall.

Mark and I warmed up on Salt River Canyon in Arizona, a river I had run half a dozen times without any problem, and my eskimo roll went to hell. For three days before the trip I read about Westwater and practiced my roll in the swimming pool, but it still wouldn't come. I tried to unlearn everything I knew about rolling and start over. It got worse. I talked myself out of kayaking, found a spot in the raft that would be making the trip. I knew that the Colorado was no place to swim.

The night before we left for Westwater, Mark and I went to buy hip braces for his kayak from Bill Carter, an Arizona kayaker famous for his first descents of isolated mountain rivers and who made extra money selling equipment and giving lessons. Mark told Bill I had driven two thousand miles and planned to raft Westwater rather than kayak. He meant well, but it sounded mean to me.

Bill asked what rivers I had run, how I had made out. I told him about my eskimo roll. Bill said people lose their rolls all the time, and that it wasn't as bad as I made it out to be. He told me there was a trail around Skull, and how to recognize it. I decided to try Westwater and walk Skull, but I didn't sleep well that night, or the following night.

Westwater was everything I thought it would be, and worse. The water was squirrelly, frantic. For me, strictly survival paddling. I was determined to stay upright. Even thinking about an eskimo roll, or a swim, was out of the question. The first big wave was a wall in the middle of the river. I watched the two kayaks in front of me climb up and up the face of the wave, and then vanish over the edge as if they had been swallowed. The rest was roller coaster, until Skull, where I paddled so hard for the bank that I completely beached my kayak on the rocks. Whole trees were being thrashed around the Room of Doom.

I carried my boat around the rapid and waited below to help Mark or the others if they got into trouble. I set my Dancer down in an eddy, normally the smoothest part of the river, but this one had three-foot waves. Everyone made it. Mark flipped in Skull and rolled up so quick his hair barely got wet.

The rest of Westwater went by too fast, because I didn't start having fun until Skull was over. I began to enjoy the boat, the way the water moved, those imposing whirlpools, and when the canyon walls opened up and the river became placid, I paddled to the raft and drank two quick beers. They tasted as good as any I'd ever had, and I was glad Mark talked me into kayaking.

I don't want to be one of those people who overestimate their skills and get into trouble. I had to weigh the reward of seeing the sunlight playing off the black walls of Westwater Canyon, the pleasure of difficult white water, against the risk of losing a borrowed kayak, a hundred-and-fifty-dollar paddle, the cost of a forest service rescue, and possibly my life. Later that summer I bought a new kayak, my own Dancer. I tried it out on the Bouie River north of my home, a quiet river with wide sand banks and cypress trees growing at the edge of the water. I eskimo rolled seven times for luck. Sometimes now I wonder about Skull and how I would have done, but not too much. Fear can be healthy.


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